Many people who’ve lived interesting lives want to learn how to write an autobiography. Whether you want to write a memoir or a fictional autobiography, these 7 steps will help you start:
What is autobiography?
Autobiography means to write about yourself, typically the account of significant events in your life.
The word stems from the Greek, αὐτός (autos) meaning self, plus βίος (bios) meaning life and γράφειν (graphein) – to write.
Autobiography vs memoir: What’s the difference?
What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir? Are there specific kinds of autobiography?
These may be questions you ask as you set out to write your life story.
As Ian Jack writes in The Guardian, there are differences between autobiography vs memoir although the terms are often used interchangeably:
An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. All kinds of people, more or less famous, can write them or be helped to write them: footballers, politicians, newsreaders. Deeds, fame and an interesting life are not necessary ingredients of the memoir.
The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.Ian Jack, in The Guardian, February 2003.
7 steps to write your own life story:
- Brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope
- Skim autobiographies for inspiration
- Choose between autobiography and memoir
- Outline key and illustrative life events
- Draft key scenes from your life
- Find strong transitions
- Check details and get beta readers
1. Brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope
Deciding what period and events you’ll cover in your life story is a helpful first step in choosing how to write an autobiography.
Squishing the intrigues, heartbreaks, surprises and secrets of your life into narrative form may seem an impossible task. Life of course does not unfold in neat paragraphs, scenes and chapters.
Make it easier and brainstorm your autobiography’s focus and scope. Ask:
- What period of my life do I want to tell readers about?
- Where should the timeline start? (Infancy? Childhood? Adolescence?)
- What are key events of my life readers may find intriguing?
This will help you refine your autobiography’s focus [you can also pinpoint your story’s focus in the Central Idea brainstorming tool in the Now Novel dashboard].
For deciding your story’s scope, ask:
- What essential scenes and events should I include?
- What themes or subjects need mention (for example, if you have experienced a trauma or illness that has greatly impacted your life, exploring personal events and insights that resulted from them would make sense)
Autobiography Exercise: Scenes to show
Write a brief bullet list of events to include in your autobiography or memoir.
Focus on events that show strong emotion, key turning points or changes, or vivid life lessons, because these connect with readers.
- A first encounter with someone who turned out to be an amazing mentor
- A positive or challenging move to another school, city or country in childhood
- The first time you met a major love interest in your life
- The moment you walked away from a job or other commitment to pursue a new dream
2. Skim autobiographies for inspiration
One of the best ways to learn how to write an autobiography is, of course, to read published examples.
Get hold of copies of autobiographies that interest you. Skim parts such as the beginning and end, chapter beginnings and endings. Read for details that leap out at you, grab your attention.
Take notes on how the author approaches telling their life story. Do they:
- Proceed chronologically from childhood to adulthood or play with time and memories?
- Start with a dramatic, life-changing incident or lead in slowly?
- Tell the reader what they’re going to cover or leave the reader to gradually discover the narrative structure or shape of the story?
Reading autobiography and note-taking in this way helps you see the options for how to structure your narrative.
3. Choose between autobiography and memoir
Reading autobiography examples will help you see how authors use common narrative elements.
For example, the acclaimed author Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisted (1967), 17.
[…] I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth.
Nabokov, in typically ornate fashion, breaks the ‘rules’ of autobiography. He uses third person to describe a ‘ young chronophobiac’ – one who is afraid of time.
We can guess this ‘young chronophobiac’ is Nabokov himself, and that he is using a tone of ironic detachment to imply that the act of dredging through memories – or even the idea of time itself – fills him with ‘something like panic’.
The above seems more like a literary play with form (an attribute Ian Jack ascribes memoir) than a straightforward, chronological autobiography.
Readers might indeed wonder why Nabokov calls Speak, Memory an autobiography.
Nabokov does, however, proceed more or less chronologically, from before his birth, to Chapter 2 which begins:
It was the primordial cave (and not what Freudian mystics might suppose) that lay behind the games I played when I was four.Nabokov, Speak, Memory, p. 20.
Thus Nabokov blends elements of memoir. He blends illustrative snapshots of life (the part illuminating the whole) with key events (birth, childhood) typical of autobiographical narration.
Thinking about how you’ll structure your life story, however, will make it more purposeful and consistent.
4. Outline key and illustrative life events
In deciding how to write an autobiography, there are two types of events to include:
- Key events – Crucial, formative experiences, for example an early childhood triumph or loss that shaped your view of the world.
- Illustrative events – Individual encounters, lessons, romances, teachers and mentors that provide texture, background, humour, drama or the other vital elements of storytelling.
Examples of key events and illustrative events in autobiography
As an example, Nabokov uses the games he would play as a child at the start of chapter two to illustrate how he came to value imagination and beauty.
He describes making a couch tent:
I then had the fantastic pleasure of creeping through that pitch-dark tunnel, where I lingered a little to listen to the singing in my ears – that lonesome vibration so familiar to small boys in dusty hiding places – and then, in a burst of delicious panic, on rapidly thudding hands and knees I would reach the tunnel’s far end…’Nabokov, Speak, Memory, p. 20.
This is an example of illustrative event: a scene in autobiography that reveals something about the author.
In this case, we see Nabokov’s love of games of imagination and sensory stimulation (something one finds abundant in his fiction).
An example of a key event would be a major relocation, a historical conflict (such as war), or another key turning point.
For example, Nabokov describes the effects of the Russo-Japanese War (a key event) in 1905 on the family unit:
The close of Russia’s disastrous campaign in the Far East was accompanied by furious internal disorders. Undaunted by them, my mother, with her three children, returned to St. Petersburg after almost a year of foreign resorts.Nabokov, Speak, Memory, p. 24.
Autobiography exercise: Finding key and illustrative events
Write a bullet list each of key and illustrative events – a sentence describing each. Examples:
- The year my family moved from Country A to Country B
- The first time I held a violin in my hands
- The first close friendship I ever made at school
- The experience and emotion of boarding a plane for the first time
- A specific funny or insightful violin lesson or teacher
- A day with a close school friend that left an indelible impression
5. Draft key scenes from your life
Now that you have ideas for key and illustrative events in your life, expand on an example.
Use the techniques of fiction to enrich the scene.
For example, Nabokov describes his sensory impressions behind the family couch.
- Impressions of sound, smell, touch, taste or specific visual details
- Emotions (Nabokov conveys a palpable sense of the child’s simultaneous delight in secrecy and panic in the dark when he describes crawling through the tunnel he made using the family couch)
As you draft, keep this in mind: What do I want to tell, show, teach? How will this help, entertain, surprise, amuse my reader?
6. Find strong transitions
Learning how to write an autobiography is not that different from learning how to write fiction.
For one, autobiographical writing and fiction writing both need engaging introductions, transitions, exposition and development.
An advantage of memoir and autobiography is that transition is a shared, relatable part of life.
For example, most children in countries where school attendance is required by law will leave the family unit and go out into the world at a similar age.
These key life changes are useful places in a memoir or autobiography for chapter breaks or scene transitions.
Nabokov, for example, uses the family move to St Petersburg at the start of Chapter 4 to transition into describing his first teacher, a natural early childhood memory to include:
With a sharp and merry blast from the whistle that was part of my first sailor suit, my childhood calls me back into that distant past to have me shake hands again with my delightful teacher. Vasiliy Martinovich Zhernosekov had a fuzzy brown beard, a balding head, and china-blue eyes, one of which bore a fascinating excrescence on the upper lid.
Nabokob, Speak, Memory, p. 24.
Note how Nabokov signals the narrative transition – by describing a sound he associates with that period of his life. It’s a vivid, descriptive way to end one section of story and begin another.
7. Check details and get beta readers
As you write an autobiography or memoir, it’s often helpful to speak to family or old friends. Because you never know who may remember a funny, interesting or surprising detail about a time you are remembering and trying to capture.
The people who know you best may be your best beta readers when you write about yourself. It’s also good etiquette, if writing about a family member or friend who is still living, to run sections concerning them past them.